One of Cincinnati’s finest bands, The Sundresses, is returning to the record-store shelves this week with a new album, This Machine Kills. The band hosts a free album release concert Saturday at MOTR Pub (1345 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, motrpub.com), joined by Lexington, Ky.’s excellent Ancient Warfare. Showtime is 10 p.m.
The Sundresses’ blistering live show has maintained a steady presence in Greater Cincinnati clubs (and the group plays out-of-town shows regularly), but this is the band’s first full-length album of original material since 2008’s sophomore LP, Barkinghaus, which won Album of the Year honors at that year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. It was definitely worth the wait for This Machine Kills, which is the group’s best effort yet on every level, from the writing and playing to the production and sheer power and soul that emanates from each track.
This Machine Kills marks the first recorded effort featuring The Sundresses as a four-piece. Prior to the installation of Dave Reid (formerly of The Dukes are Dead) as drummer a couple of years ago, the ‘Dresses’ co-frontmen — singers/songwriters/guitarists Brad Schnittger and Jeremy Springer — would take turns unstrapping their guitars and hopping behind the drum kit. While the switch has less of an impact on the recorded Sundresses work (though Reid sounds amazing and fits perfectly into the group’s groove on Machine), in concert, the new approach gives the band a fuller sound and does away with the frequent set lulls.
For longtime fans, This Machine Kills doesn’t mess with The Sundresses’ formula much (and die-hard fans have heard many of these tunes live over the years). It’s just done better. It’s Blues-injected, livewire Rock & Roll, alternately delivered with M-80 explosiveness and a swaggering, slow-burn simmer.
The album kicks off with the combustible boogie of “Banker’s Blues,” an incendiary commentary on the banking industry’s destructive meltdown that could’ve been the “Occupy Wall Street” movement’s anthem, featuring the wild-eyed refrain, “I’m gonna dance, dance, dance/While you burn, burn, burn.” On “7777,” the pace picks up, adding some punkish energy to the group’s inherent saunter (props to bassist Makenzie Place, who anchors The Sundresses’ swing with precision and bluster), with riffs that fly like sparks off of a low-rider drag racing, while “Larry Nixon” has Honky Tonk/Rockabilly undertones, sizzling and shimmying like an amphetamine-fueled Elvis pelvic-thrust.
The adrenalized rave-ups would be enough to make The Sundresses a must-hear Rock & Roll marvel, but the band has a whole other side to its sound that helps take it miles above its like-minded peers and makes This Machine Kills a dynamic, start-to-finish masterwork. The band is capable of nimbly dialing back the tempestuous energy and crawl into a creeping, slower-paced mode that is as impactful and potent as the barnburners.
On “You Can’t Catch Me,” the band transforms into a smoldering Garage Soul band, while “Harpoon Dagger” flutters breezily into a colorful chorus, with melodies that sound like something off of a lost ’60s Psych Pop nugget. “Stepson of a Working Man” and the band’s take on Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” have an uneasy, eerie quality — if you were house-hunting in the middle of the night and exploring an old, long-neglected and abandoned dwelling when these songs started echoing through the halls seemingly out of nowhere, you’d immediately sprint away, Scooby Do-style. This Machine Kills ends with “Lost at Sea,” a swaying, electric-piano-driven slice of clean, contemplative Pop that sounds like nothing The Sundresses have done before. It almost has a Soft Rock feel, which is something no one has ever said about The Sundresses in their decade-and-a-half-long career.
Since the Blues was born, there have always been tons of musical acts that use the Blues as a jump-off point and try to make their own sound. It takes a truly gifted and creative group of musicians to actually do so and make music that never reminds the listener of any of those other bands tinkering with the original blueprint. The Sundresses use the same tools and ideas other musicians have worked with for generations, yet somehow they’ve been able to concoct a singular, defining sound. It’s a feat that is incredibly difficult to pull off, but This Machine Kills proves — over and over again — that it is possible. And, perhaps most impressively, The Sundresses make it all sound natural and effortless.